Thursday, June 25, 2015

Interpretation and Relevancy in the Aftermath of the Charleston Attack.

Before I begin, I want to offer up a full disclaimer that I'm writing on my own time on one of my off days. 

One of the great challenges for any historic site or historian is "how do we make this relevant?" In my previous career as a high school history teacher, my students used to ask, "Why do I need to know this?" The cliché answers about learning from the past never seemed to cut it. How is history relevant? 

A week ago, as you've no doubt heard, Dylann Roof, a twenty one year old self-avowed white supremacist walked into a historic African American church in Charleston and murdered nine people. At first, the national conversation was about guns. President Obama's initial statement on the attack emphasized how easy it is for people to get guns and the frequency of mass violence in this nation. Then the conversation shifted to Roof's motive. Was this an incident of mental health? Typically with these mass shootings people make the case that the real issue isn't guns, but mental health. But in this case, evidence began to emerge that this was a well planned out attack motivated by race and intended to instill terror in the black community. From there the topic shifted to race - why is it that when people of color go on politically motivated rampages it's thuggery or terrorism, but when a white kid does it it's a mental health issue? 

The Confederate flag flies at full staff (Wall St. Journal photo)

As the city of Charleston began to mourn, Governor Nikki Haley ordered state and national flags in South Carolina lowered to half staff - all except one. By state law, the Confederate flag that flies on the state house grounds cannot be raised or lowered without the approval of 2/3 of the legislature. So we have a situation where flags are symbolically at half staff in mourning for the victims of racial violence, but the most racially charged symbol in the city remained proudly waving at full staff. From there, the internet exploded and calls to take down Confederate flags and symbols reached a fever pitch. In less than a week the national debate shifted from gun control to mental health to race to the Confederate flag. Politicians started coming out in support of taking down the Confederate flag - even Strom Thurmond's son spoke out. Major retailers announced that they'd no longer carry Confederate flags for sale. The governor of Alabama even ordered the flags removed from the state house there. They've come a long way since George Wallace. 

Seemingly everybody has an opinion on what's going on. Many see this as an assault on their southern heritage or the relentless assault of the PC police. Still others view this as a long awaited victory and a small time towards racial justice and equality. People debate, with varying degrees of understanding, the role of race and slavery in the Civil War and Reconstruction. The things we talk about everyday in our sites - slavery, states rights, motives of Union and Confederate soldiers - are suddenly all over Facebook, Twitter, social media, dinner table conversations. You could say that the Civil War has gone "viral." One of my Facebook friends, irritated with the fevered debates posted, "I didn't realize so many of my facebook friends had attended college and studied History, specializing in Nineteenth Century American History and Reconstruction in the post-war south... So for those of you who have, speak on, for the rest of you, isn't Maury on?" I jokingly chimed in on his post, "Hey, I did!" 

And that brings me back to where I started - relevancy. (Relevancy; noun: the condition of being relevantor connected with the matter at hand) 

For years, historic sites and interpreters have struggled with this idea - How do we remain relevant? We've tried everything from social media outreach to kids camps. We've created huge campaigns or events to attract new audiences. We've long held an attitude of "If you build it they will come," with varying degrees of limited success. Suddenly, and without prompting from us, the entire nation is talking about the Civil War and its legacy. Our sites and our stories are relevant in ways that they've never been before. Why are we important has never been so clear for so many people on both sides of this debate. The sites where thousands of men fought and died are inextricably "connected with the matter at hand," whether we want them to be or not. The choice we as interpreters are confronted with is "What do we do now?" Do we continue to do the same programs as if nothing has changed? Will we still focus almost exclusively on the movements and positioning of men and material on a landscape? Will we simply describe the process by which a weapon is loaded and fired? Will we bury our heads in the sand as if nothing is happening? Will we quietly change the subject when somebody starts ranting or asking questions? Will we agree with them, or argue with them? Will we grumble in paranoia that "they" (whoever that is) will make us stop doing Confederate living history programs? The academic historian community has been out there the last week - posting blogs, giving interviews, they even got a topic trending on Twitter - #CharlestonSyllabus. Where have our historic sites and interpreters been? We don't have to take sides on the issue, but we can at least facilitate a conversation.

It may feel crass to think about what are we going to do as interpreters in our sites. Nine people are being buried this weekend. But the parks aren't closing down just because of the tragedy. We aren't canceling programs. Whether we're ready or not, Saturday is coming, and with it hundreds or thousands of people, nearly all of whom have been glued to news the last week and they're looking for answers, places to vent, places to talk, or places to escape. We can't just pretend that doesn't exist and point at red and blue lines on a map.

*Once again - the opinions expressed in this blog are mine do not reflect that of my employer or colleagues. This was written on my day off while sitting at home on my own time.  

Friday, April 24, 2015

Shifting the Narrative

Yesterday, I bumped into a long-time, long-distance buddy of mine at the Tennessee State Library and Archives. It was serendipity, to say the least; he lives in Maryland and I only found myself at the archives because a school group was late, so I had a little bit of free time. During our short chat, he reminded me that sometimes the most harmful kind of censorship is self-censorship. Honesty moment: sometimes I don't want to share things on here because I am afraid of sharing my own weaknesses or sounding basic or feeling inadequate. I like to think that this is "my space" and I can say what I want, but sometimes, I don't. So with his words in mind, I modified this post that I wrote last week and will share it today:

The National Council on Public History had its annual meeting in Nashville last week (was that just last week??). In many ways, I had been preparing for the conference for nearly a year; the tour company I co-manage sponsored the meeting and had a variety of tours available for attendees. So technically, I was working the conference, though I tried to fit in as much attending as I could. The limited amount of time I had in sessions provoked a variety of thoughts; I have several pages of scrawling ideas to sort through in the near future. I think I had an NCPH hangover; all of those ideas hung in my head like a fog and I am just now feeling enough clarity to pick up the projects I had set aside for the conference.

 However, even amongst the waves upon waves of ideas, questions, and engagement, it was the question of a 10 year old boy that got me a'thinkin:

Student groups are my heart; I love the engagement, intrigue, and insight of these young minds.

During the conference, our regularly-scheduled tours went in addition to the to the conference tours. We had one group of nearly 90 fourth graders out to explore the history of downtown Nashville by taking a hike through it. The students as a group were great- well behaved, high-energy, willing to participate. At one point, right after I finished talking about the suffrage movement in Nashville leading up to the year 1920, I opened up for questions. The students had good questions (many asked "why" and "why did that happen" and that warmed my humanities heart... keep asking, kids!). One boy raised his hand and asked "I don't want to seem rude, but back then didn't people of different skin get treated differently? Did that mean black women were allowed to vote, or just white women?"

Do you know, I have given this tour hundreds of times to a variety of audiences and never has anybody asked me that? I answered to boy as honestly as I could. Yes, they did but there were still people at that time who tried to restrict their access to votes.  In fact, prior to the 19th amendment taking affect, there were meetings by white women in Nashville who expressed their own concern if the women of color also got the vote.

That boy's question has been churning in me ever since. As I tell stories of the past, I still gravitate toward a narrative that focuses on the white experience as the "core" and weave other people groups and stories throughout. I use the word "enslaved" when I am talking about "enslaved." I make sure to talk about immigrants, and immigrant contributions, (an easy thing to do when talking about various labor forces in Nashville history). I even use the interpretive tool of suggesting what would life be like in "their shoes" (referring to a variety of folk of a variety of ages, colors, and genders, not just major white characters). I remind visitors that people were here before the white settlement, that civilizations were here before whites even had an eye on this land. I am always asking myself "how can I do better?" and I am constantly reassessing how a story can be told to better convey the richness of the past. When I tell a story about the suffrage movement and one city's contributions, I have to remember that not everybody had the same experience.

That hit me especially hard when the next student group I worked with was a diverse high school group from Georgia. During the tour, the only thing I could think about what the diversity of theoretical pasts. Depending on the era I was talking about, each student would have had a totally different experience. It was jolting for me as a story teller.

Now, before you go and say, "duh, Elizabeth, everybody knows that," I want to be honest.

I have been dealing with a lot of "do-over" ideas the past few weeks, including how to best share an inclusive story. The concept of how we do history is more of a reflection of our generation is something I "learned" in school but that I am continually re-understanding, re-absorbing. The idea that white people aren't the only people is something I learned way back in second grade (my generation is the one who grew up with boxes of crayons produced by Crayola that included only shades of skin tone as a means of encouraging diversity). How do we shift that commonly-told narrative? When the lens has been set one way for so long, how do we readjust the focal point? When do we stop celebrating various groups in their assigned "History Month(s)" and start incorporating them consistently into the core?

The complexity of history challenges, confounds, and surprises. I have a sneaking suspicion that that is never going to change.

And before you ask, I am working on my own shifts in how I share history. It is a process.

*As with all my writings on this blog, I write this on my own time. These thoughts are my own and do not represent any of the companies or organizations of which I affiliate.

**I see hope in the future if those are the types of questions that fourth graders ask.

***I am still pretty stoked about that serendipitous meeting yesterday. Of all the days and all the people! Thanks for the encouragement, Mr. M!

Saturday, February 21, 2015

Paid in Sunsets, Sort of.

I am going to be up front here. Once upon a time, while I still worked for the National Park Service, I wrote a post on this very blog. The next day, (on my day off) I received a call from my supervisor because she had received a call from the superintendent because she had received a call from somebody in the Washington Office. Do you know the level of stress that smothered me? The one activity where I found solace (blogging) in a tough place put me on a hot plate. I was doing nothing wrong (I only wrote on my days off and my bio stated that my opinions were my own). I was told, however, I needed to do a better job of making it clear that what I was writing did not reflect the opinions of the National Park Service and that writing could get me into trouble. It was bullshit then, it is bullshit now. If anything, my supervisor should have been happy to know one of her employees loved what she did so much, she continued to explore these ideas even in her off time. If anything, the National Park Service should have been happy to have somebody willing to share how some of the program development (even the criticism part) operates. I was a lowly GS-05 park guide. What harm could I do?

Now, I don't work for the National Park Service. I advocate for parks, I research for parks. Sometimes, I even visit parks just to visit them. I don't worry about getting a call about what I write. I don't worry about getting reprimanded for work that ultimately also earned me an award (true story). I don't worry that what I write here might impede my getting hired later. This is my space. I can ramble on all I want and you don't have to read it. I can delete everything and you don't have to care. In my past, I remained incredibly vague about the struggles I had while working with the park service. It got to the point where I had more shitty days than good ones and nothing is worth the mental or emotional drain; even a "dream" job. With all that being said, here come some reflections that I have kept inside for many years.

Yesterday, somebody tagged me about a Call for Papers issued by the National Park Traveler Publication. Yes, two and a half years after my official "good-bye," the green and grey identity follows me. It got me thinking. If I were to write something, there is so much I could address: poor hiring practices, "do less with less," even how this publication clearly understands "parks" as natural sites when there are far more historic resources managed by the service. After the brief moment of "coulds," I went about my day as I usually do: chores, work, more chores, more work. While I am still intrigued about the National Park Service (one does not study the history of the National Park Service and then work for the National Park Service without still feeling a little connection to the National Park Service), it did not consume my day. Later in the evening, however, I saw Abbi on twitter make mention of being a "recovering park ranger." I am that! I am one of those! I have never met Abbi, I just follow her on the Twitterverse and replied to one of her tweets last night. Little did I know her comment would open a flood of conversation on Twitter by a series of current and former folks associated with the National Park Service.

First, it made me sad to see others experiencing the same struggles I did when I worked for the National Park Service. There is a disparate understanding of the National Park Service depending on the viewer. The average visitor sees a friendly park ranger and fields or historic homes or forests or rivers and says "wow, this is a great job with great benefits." However, the National Park Service ranks 213th in employee satisfaction out of the 314 comparable federal government agencies. That's not good. How employees feel, are even told how to feel, and what the public's perception are very different things.

Yes, when I worked for the National Park Service, I was told about our "benefits." Early in my career, with my bells on my toes and stars in my eyes, I was entirely ok with working hard to earn my way up the career ladder. I did work well above my pay-grade and ultimately, it paid off. Through the "SCEP" program, I eventually got a permanent job. It was a GS-05 park guide job, but it was permanent. That's the dream, right? Be a permanent park ranger? Oh, except I was a "guide" and was reminded more than once that there is a difference. Oh, and I was runner up to several jobs; in several cases the candidate hired knew the supervisor (or supervisor knew the candidate). That's ok, I thought. It just means keep trying harder. Even if you drive yourself into the ground because the system is not built to encourage and cultivate innovative or quality work. It is still a bureaucracy. It just happens to be a cultish bureaucracy that "pays in sunsets."

From my first season, a friend of mine captured the
quintessential park ranger (not pointing at things).

The cult of the National Park Service starts with identity. Wearing the green and grey is your honor, your duty, your identity. We come from a long line of park rangers! It is a noble job! The mountains are calling yadda, yadda, yadda! This cult also cultivates a sense that the National Park Service is all there is. I know many people and parks within the agency who have a hard time with being true partners because they believe the NPS is the only way. No other agency, organization, or group can do it better than the NPS. This notion ultimately bleeds back into the identity. If there is no National Park Service, then what is there?! People thinking of leaving the National Park Service must be crazy and what else is there?!

I know where this question was coming from, but I was recently asked if I was happy after leaving the National Park Service. Yes. Yes, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service and be happy. In fact, it is possible to exist outside the National Park Service AND be happy AND still advocate for parks. Weird, right?

 It also took me a while to figure out I could also do other things. I dedicated several years and much energy (and invested a great deal of money into a degree) for what I wanted to be my end goal. Ultimately, my wants and goals changed the more I worked for the National Park Service. It did not work out the way I originally intended, but I am at peace with it. It saddens me that the struggle is real for others, though. You have to give yourself permission to live life on your own terms. If that means stepping away from the National Park Service, then step away. If it means finding another federal agency, find another agency. If it means an entire career switch, switch careers. I knew I would encounter questions and even some resistance when I left. One person even told me "aren't you like 'Miss NPS,' how can you just leave?" teasing about my complete passion for what I did. I knew I would struggle after leaving, but I also knew my identity was not tied to the green and grey.

Some people who work for the NPS might read this now and think "that doesn't sound like me, I love my job/co-workers/park/resources/uniformed mom pants." That's ok, too. But may I suggest you appreciate that because it is not service-wide. And maybe some who work for the NPS right now will read this and not want to think about how the agency you love has also systematically screwed over countless quality workers. There is still a lot that needs to be said. There is a lot that the NPS needs to hear.

While sometimes I feel like the relationship I have with the National Park Service
is like that of one with a bad ex-boyfriend, it does not stop me from reminiscing.

I still have more to say about why people struggle. I still have my thoughts on the hiring practices that are not always effective. I still have thoughts about how the National Park Service works as a machine, assuming that people are likes cogs and wheels and easily interchangeable. I still have thoughts about how the service that I hold dear to my heart has burned so many good workers. Maybe I will write an essay for that call of papers. Maybe I will write those thoughts here. Or maybe not. Just know this: recovering park rangers are never alone.

 *Hells to the yes, I am adding an additional disclaimer about how I am NOT an employee of the National Park Service and these thoughts are MINE all MINE. Why would I break that over-three-year-old trend?

**I am still trying to figure out how to use Storify to capture the essence of the conversation that happened on the Twitters. It was a good one. If I get around to it, I will share it here. If I don't, you should be able to roughly follow along via my feed and the shared tweets.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

When Capes and Cloaks Go On Display

History is messy. There is no easy way around that. Museums and other public sites have to take that messy history and present it in a way that is compartmentalized (often by space, whether it is wall space, room space, or case space). These places have to present all of this in a manner that is accessible and makes sense (often the linear story- this happened, then this, then this...). And, of course, collection items should be included (the "stuff" is important! people like stuff!) to help visually tell the story.

I meandered through the Tennessee State Museum the other day; I knew they had their Reconstruction Era exhibit out (I pass the building on foot several times a week and they have a banner advertising such). "What is to Become of the People: The Civil War and Reconstruction in Tennessee" will be on display until June. I also knew that the museum had Ku Klux Klan regalia in the collection and years ago (possibly even as an exercise as a graduate student) I had a conversation about whether or not it would be a good idea to display this robe. No, controversy. Yes, education. No, it represents a poor part of our history. Yes, it can ignite a dialogue. There is no doubt in my mind that there was plenty of conversations about this amongst museum staff in planning meetings for this exhibit. So when I went through the exhibit, I was entirely intrigued if and how they would handle this part of their collection and story.

It did not occur to me that the title of exhibit did not say "Reconstruction" outright. Initially, I was confused why the first two rooms talked about life leading up to the war and then life during the war. Ok, so the TSM decided it needed to talk about the war to contextualize the Reconstruction. In the third-ish room, images and text finally gets around to Reconstruction-y stuff, including a replicated display of a schoolroom for newly free people of color. (Remember? Stuff. People like stuff. Chalkboards count as stuff.) There is information about the struggles for newly-freed folks, for poor white folks, for isolated populations, and rural places.

As I turned the corner to the almost-final room, I saw it. While I knew exactly what it was from afar, I tried to pretend I did not know what that garment represented. It was my own attempt at pretending to be a visitor.

I read some of the panels of the walls, first. How was the museum going to treat this portion of Reconstruction? The panels included scenes of some of the violence like the contemporary newspapers.

Caption reads: "Scenes in Memphis, Tennessee, during the riot --
Shooting down negroes on the morning of May 2, 1866. -- [Sketched by A.R.K.]"
Titles like "Epidemic of Violence" and "The Politics of Terror" hovered above printed paragraphs on the wall. There were some illustrative stories and a few statistics. The text in one panel states that while there is no sure way to know, the 1868 Tennessee legislative committee tasked with investigating the crimes of the Klan estimated that "from March through August of that year, the Klan had murdered an average of one person a day." And then when you look at the associated display, there is this:

The Klan robe, a photo of a Klansmen, a political cartoon, and a few associated pieces (including a KKK pin that acknowledged Nathan Bedford Forrest as a leader) are displayed with accompanying informational text. In the corner of the basement of the state museum is displayed one of the most atrocious, festering, blistering scars in our nation's history, brazenly quiet. I want to applaud the museum for putting it out, but I also hang my head in how it just leaves this whole issue wide open with neither provocation nor questions. Missed potential by a public institution, yet again!

While thinking about what was there, what was missing, and what maybe could have been included to strengthen this exhibit, I wandered about the room to see what other items were on display. I saw this:

What is it, you ask? Why, it is Mary Bedford's cape! Who is Mary Bedford? Why, she is Nathan Bedford Forrest's wife! Who is Nathan Bedford Forrest? I'll try to be objective here: murderer, slave trader, racist, and wait for it, considered the first leader (possibly founder) of the Ku Klux Klan. That's right, one of the more notorious white supremacy groups that terrorized folks (mostly folks of color) after the American Civil War. So actually, an appropriate term that I can apply to Forrest is "terrorist." He was an American born-and-bred terrorist. I have tried to rack through every potential reason of why displaying this cloak would be appropriate and I can't find any reason. (Maybe because it is "stuff" and people like "stuff"). The text talks about how Forrest bought this for Mary in New York when he was president of a railroad in 1870. There is no connection to this piece and other things on display (including the Governor Brownlow's inauguration jacket).

This room contains very distinct fibers woven in very distinct ways. These fibers were cut and sewn in manners to portray very specific things. A mask like this is meant to instill fear while allowing the person wearing it to act in full-cowardice mode:

The fancy cape was designed to show off wealth (mass-produced clothing had not happened, yet... let me assure you that she was not wearing any version of a "knock-off brand"). Completely from a logical standpoint, what purpose does it serve that these pieces are displayed, especially in a room together? Cue my Tour Guide Barbie voice: "Over here we have a garment worn by men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. And if you look over here, we have a fancy cape of the wife of the leader of the men who murdered and mutilated easily hundreds of souls during the years after the Civil War. The surprising clean condition of the white cape shows a stark contrast to the amount of blood spilled during the time she was alive but you won't find that in any of the text!"

What I was most surprised about the whole exhibit was "The End." Wait for it... That was "The End." There was a little more text about some of the legal stuff and the nation moving along. A whole lot of loose ends strewn about as I passed through the next doorway. The final room was an art exhibit (art reflecting the Civil War by Red Grooms... it was in itself an engaging exhibit but a complete disjointed jolt from what is going on in the other room). So we had a replica school and a robe. We had mentions of violence and a few images. Oh, and a misplaced cape. No conclusions, no provoking questions, no unsettling of basic understandings (or misunderstandings) of American history during the years following a civil war.

History is messy. We don't get to change that. However, we do have a choice on how we deal with the messy, especially when interacting with the public. Provocation leads to conversations. Provocation leads to further investigation. Provocation leads to questioning. Hell, provocation might lead to news stories published and people losing their minds (which is what I think encouraged the great deal of reservation exercised in the development of this exhibit). But that can also lead to more people engaging and more people visiting and more people joining this conversation. Put that robe on display in the middle, put it on a mannequin that looked like it was doing something. If you can have props like a chalkboard, why not have props like a noose? People like stuff and stuff can convey greater meanings. It is 2015. We aren't hiding behind "oh, it is in the past" anymore. We aren't even hiding behind "oh, only the prettier parts of the past should be on display." Hell, even "put it in the text, but use passive voice to break it to our audience gently," doesn't work. The violence was real and had long-lasting consequences. Public spaces are meant for engagement and hiding the robe in the corner isn't going to do much engaging.

Historians who engage with the public, whether front line interpreters or exhibit designers have a great deal of potential and responsibility. Our first step: acknowledging the messy. Our second step: facilitating the messy. It might be a struggle, but it is our challenge. Maybe it means historians standing up and being brave about this messy history. In the words of Sara Bareilles: "I want to see you be brave."

*For my annoying disclaimer, I wrote this on my own time and visited the museum on my own time as a member of the public. I am not associated with the Tennessee State Museum although I am constantly suggesting to visitors from out-of-town to visit. And I want to acknowledge the challenges of doing history within government-y confines (I have been there, done that). Envelope-pushing is still allowed, though.

**Edit: I changed the date of the Tennessee legislative committee to reflect the accurate year.

Monday, August 25, 2014

Storying Limestone

I remember my first (cognizant) visit to an American Civil War battlefield. It was a place managed by the National Park Service. At the ripe ol' age of 12, I discovered (unconsciously) how places contain stories because of that visit. The park ranger who led the battle tour made the stories of the battle feel real and the few remaining traces of the landscape contemporary to the mid-nineteenth century fueled my imagination of the past. I could see it! I could feel it! Later, I would write my master's thesis on how the significance of space and place and landscape in history and the roles space and place and landscape play in the interpretation of the past. That early visit planted a seed in me about how I engaged with the past and created a desire to share that passion. I still utilize that passion by taking people through the streets of downtown Nashville and reveal how the places tell stories of a rich and complex history.

My first experience at utilizing my experience of using a place to reveal a story happened during my time working as a park ranger at Stones River National Battlefield. Have you ever been to middle Tennessee? It's a pretty place. Have you ever tried to garden in middle Tennessee? Depending on the landscape, you might have a heck of a time digging in the dirt because of that limestone. Limestone plays such a role in the landscape here (all the way up through Kentucky, too- just ask the Corvette Museum). It forms rolling hills and hollers. It jets out in some places and recedes in others to create visually striking scenes. It makes post-hole digging an exponentially strenuous task. Basements are nearly non-existent in the area because it is so hard to dig down before hitting solid rock. As it plays roles today, the limestone has contributed to the human history on the landscape, especially during the Battle of Stones River and the events that followed.

Even the national cemetery established at the battlefield after the Battle of Stones River
had to be built "up" and dirt brought in because the limestone interfered with digging efforts.

At the battlefield park now managed by the National Park Service, the approximately 15% of preserved battlefield land contains trails and roads and signs to guide visitors through the place to learn more about the site. The vast majority of the interpretive media focuses on the three days of battle history. One of the most iconic scenes of the battlefield rests on the south side of the tour loop; protruding from the ground are dozens of large limestone outcroppings with narrow crevices between them. This place is now called "The Slaughter Pen." It is featured in many visual materials, as it helps separate this battlefield from others. During the battle, the place ultimately became a turning place for the Union army and the landscape played a role in the outcome of the battle. The fighting concentrated in the place was particularly brutal, and soldiers remembered those rocks as both defense places and then death traps.

No longer on the landscape, park managers once used these broken cannons
as a visual tool to convey the significance of these rocks.

So most visiting the place or going on a tour will visit the rocks and learn something about the limestone's significance in this battle (and how it contributed to the two armies and where they moved and ultimately the outcome of the war). Few will consider how the presence of limestone played a role in the years following the war or even the development of a battlefield park. The abundance of limestone (in addition to the detritus of war remaining on the battlefield) meant that particular swath of land retained little value after the war. Ultimately, a community of former slaves would claim the land as their own. "Rising Up From the Ashes" is the name of an interpretive program the park sometimes offers and now a wayside at the battlefield mentions this community called Cemetery. Did they choose the land deliberately? Probably not. It was not easy to grow crops on most of the land there. Lots of work likely went into cleaning up a battle-ravaged land. This group of people made the land into a community that at its height had over 1,500 citizens. This community claimed this place as "home" for several decades following the war. Many of the folks who lived out the rest of their days on the land were once considered property; this community allowed them to own property as free citizens. Wild.

"Exploring the Promise of Freedom" is a wayside along the tour route at
Stones River National Battlefield. Notice the limestone rock in the background?

The presence of a black community made it easier for the federal government to move in and buy land from these folks. At the very basic core of this, the particular piece of land attained by the government to make into a military park in the late 1920s, early 1930s had little monetary value. Again, that limestone played a role in what happened to the various parcels of land that made up this place where a battle once happened. The government did not actively pursue purchasing the nearby arable land primarily owned by white citizens; the core was secured and the place turned into a park. "The rest is history."**

Today, the National Park Service still utilizes the landscape to help tell the stories of the past. Visitors come to experience the place and learn about the history. Most are surprised to learn about the community's presence after the war (because you know, once a battlefield happens, it just turns into a park magically afterward... or at least that's the idea that just all shook up when people realize the 150 year span between fighting and today). But the park's presence is just another layer of a story. The National Park Service is one method used to preserve a place and share a place, but it is not the place.

The National Park Service as a federal agency is 98 years old today, so today seemed like a good time to reflect on what that means to me. It is a baby in the grand scheme of things and is just one portal to something bigger than ourselves. It is a land-management bureaucracy. It is also a history-management bureaucracy. And a story-management bureaucracy. And a memory-inducing bureaucracy. And an experience-producing bureaucracy. But the National Park Service is there for the resources and should be celebrating and honoring the resources, birthday or not. That limestone has been around for a while (as evidenced by some of the fossils embedded in the rock). It formed as the calcified remains of sea creatures settled a gazillion or so years ago. It has stood as native tribes hunted game through the area. It has rested quietly as white settlers began to take ownership of this land. It has had the brogans of soldiers run through it. It has existed as the barefeet of children hopped over it, playing and exploring the space on their own terms. My own park ranger hiking boots have led groups through it. It has been the frame as many scenes played out on it. And for the enjoyment of future generations that the National Park Service conserves this site, that limestone will continue to hold and tell stories regardless of how we choose to designate anniversaries.

These rocks have witnessed time march on and various people interact with the space.
In this case, a child rests amongst the limestone circa 1932.
(Photo from Stones River National Battlefield collection.)

*As a toddler, my parents took me to Fort Donelson. That's my official first battlefield visit.

**I hate that catch phrase.

***My time, my opinions, etc. etc.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

Historians are not the Only Ones Who Struggle with Relevancy

"When you think Nashville, what comes to mind?"

I ask that at the beginning of my tours of downtown Nashville. Guess what the answer is 98.5 percent of the time. Here's a hint:

[Whine whine twang twang]

Nashville is known as Music City, USA! Of course people will answer that question "country music!" It is a part of our identity today. But I give tours to reveal Nashville's complex history; there is way more to Music City than the music. Way more. (You have to come on a tour to see for yourself.)

Modern lines meet unique architecture designs from the past.
Nashville has some remarkable landscapes, most unrelated to the music industry.
The music industry in Nashville is a fairly prominent industry, but Nashville has more. The music industry has certainly played a role in Nashville's identity, but for most Nashvillians, it is not the sole identity. So when it is time to rally public support for things like historic preservation within the music industry, what we see is this industry encounter the same issues that historians working with the public have dealt with for a long time. Is relevancy the correct word?  Or maybe meaning? Or maybe resonance?

The city is growing. It is an especially popular city right now, an "it" city of sorts. Heck, we even have our own television soap opera show that features all sorts of love triangles music airing on national television. But this growth also means "progress." And sometimes "progress" and "preservation" seem to clash rather than compliment each other.

One of the more recent preservation struggles to emerge within Nashville is that of the RCA Studio A building. Ben Folds wrote an open letter about developers' interest in the property and that got picked up and carried all over the place. Several musicians and artists came forward about the significance of the property and how it has contributed to music history. Hashtags for preservation efforts even got created (and you know that if you tweet something with a hashtag for a cause, you've made a difference, right?). Even this week, the issue received national attention by way of broadcast (because not everybody reads national publications).

So I have been following this as articles get published. It's like its own soap opera, really, just made up of mortar and bricks and plans and blueprints and hope and crossed fingers and pleas and contracts and more bricks. Yesterday, I read another open letter from country musician Keith Urban. Huh, I thought. This sounds crazy familiar. A group of people recognize the significance of a place because of their own passion and experience and interests and emotions, but are having a hard time instilling these things in people beyond the members of said group.

Kind of like historians, especially historians that work with the public. Most historians know what they are passionate about and why. Their struggle is creating a relevancy to new audiences, provoking something that resonates with new audiences. We know why history is cool, that's why we chose this line of work (because history isn't usually a massive money-making endeavor; just ask your local historic house museum director). But we sometimes forget that many people don't know why these places are cool, that these stories are fascinating, that the past helps reveal who we are today. These musicians and preservationists know why they want to save this building. However, Nashville's identity is complex and very few are actually involved with the music industry. For many people, why bother with saving a place?

I usually say that in my line of work, I tell stories. It sounds simple, but it is a developed craft. I have to spark an interest with the little time I have. I have to inspire new audiences. I have to get people to care. I already know why these places are significant, but I use this craft of interpretation to share that with the public. Maybe we can learn from the musicians that are trying to save a place. Just saying "this is important" is not enough. You have to resonate with your audience so they can walk away with the answer to the question "so what." I find this case especially interesting as it shows celebrity alone does not create relevance. It is bizarrely comforting to know that historians are not the only ones and that people who are masters at evoking emotions through music struggle with portraying the emotion in their own histories. I feel ya, Ben and Keith.

I appreciate being reminded of what happens when relevance is missing. The twang of a guitar resonates, but emotional connections resonate better.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Round Numbers and Linear Intersects

Elizabeth blogged about her thoughts about the Andersonville Raiders, who were executed 150 years ago yesterday.  Elizabeth has been doing a lot of research on the raiders - who seem to be everywhere in the primary source materials while at the same time seeming to not exist.  She asks, "Who Hallows?" these places, men, and stories? But I thought I'd take a moment and share my thoughts.

Yesterday afternoon I was driving back from Atlanta, where I helped lead a teacher's workshop on teaching Andersonville and the prisoner of war experience.  We got back around 5:30pm after the park was already closed, but had to go into the park in order to get my car and sign some travel related paperwork.  We know from prisoner's diaries that these six men were hanged in the stockade at around 5:00pm.  Given that daylight savings time wasn't a thing back then, it meant that I was on the site about 30 minutes before the 150th anniversary of the exact moment of the execution.  So I walked out to the south field of the prison site, and paced off the 100 yards from the south gate to the spot where the gallows were constructed (which, incidentally was probably about 100-150 feet farther south than where a white post marker has stood since the 1930s that supposedly marks the spot of the gallows).  And I stood there and waited.  It was surprisingly noisy - the rumble of the trucks on the highway and the staccato of the nearby gun range.  A strong wind blew, filling my ears with a whoosh and mercifully keeping the gnats at bay.  A lot of birds (presumably sparrows, but I don't know.  My knowledge of nature is famously lacking for a park ranger) flew overhead chirping away.  It was partly cloudy, yielding a gray and pink sky with pockets of blue as the afternoon turned into early evening.  It was actually really nice.  I forgot where I was for a moment.  Then I looked down at my phone and realized that it was right at 6:00, and I thought about 12 feet dangling in the space my face occupied, which admittedly made me feel a little uncomfortable, but just for a moment.
The exact moment and location where the raiders were hanged.

But here's the thing.  I didn't feel anything. No emotional connection.  No period rush.  No sense of awe that I was in a spot where something important happened exactly 150 years ago to the exact moment.  There are people who would almost have killed to be standing where I was at that moment.  That exact moment of 150th anniversary Civil War Sesquicentennial is never coming back - it's gone forever.  And I didn't feel it.

What is it about round numbers that make people feel the past?  July 1-3, 2013 there were probably more visitors in Gettysburg for the 150th than there were soldiers who fought there.  My Facebook newsfeed exploded with history stuff those few days last summer. But July 1-3, 2014 for the 151st?  Crickets.  Looking at Gettysburg's Facebook page, they shared some photos of ranger programs (that appeared to be about 1/8th as well attended for the 150th).  I think the only interpretive commentary I saw that noted it was the battle anniversary was this blog by good friend John Rudy.  So what is it that makes us care about the 150th but not the 151st?  What is it that would make some people jealous that I stood in the spot of the raiders gallows at Andersonville at the exact moment of the 150th anniversary?  That field is still there today, on July 12.  Heck.  It'll still be there on a Tuesday in January if you'd like to wait for cooler weather.   When we get caught up with anniversaries, we forget that those anniversaries mean something to us.  I got so wrapped up in thinking about how cool it would be to stand there at the exact moment, that I forgot to ponder what that exact moment meant to the men who stood on that field and what it means to us today.  And I drove home unsatisfied and thinking about what I would cook for supper.

Interpreting the past does not require us to focus on specific moments.  Sure the events happened at a specific moment, but we get to come to those events at times of our choosing.  Of our convenience.  Events happen at a fixed point, and then memories and meanings radiate in a linear fashion onward through the years.  We can intersect that with that at any moment we chose.

Next week I'll be in the Harper's Ferry/Gettysburg area.  No.  I won't be there for any important anniversaries round numbers or anniversaries.  But I don't have to be.

As usual - the commentary expressed in this blog does not reflect the thoughts & opinions of my employers, and this was written on personal time at home.